A collective failure

Although Mariano Rajoy is distancing himself from the latest package of austerity measures being imposed upon Spain, they are the ultimate aim of a collective failure that must be explained to the Spanish people.  

Although Mariano Rajoy is distancing himself from the latest package of austerity measures being imposed upon Spain, they are the ultimate aim of a collective failure that must be explained to the Spanish people.

Officially, the EU has still not taken over the direct running of the Spanish economy. But following Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s announcement last week of a battery of cost-cutting and tax-raising measures, it is all too clear that the government is no longer calling the shots as far as dealing with the crisis is concerned.

Addressing the Congress of Deputies on Wednesday, for only the third time this year, Rajoy not only made it clear that the measures were being imposed by Brussels and Berlin, but explicitly distanced himself from them, seeking to give the impression that much of what he was intending to implement went against his principles and beliefs. All that was missing was for the prime minister to tell us what we already know: that these measures are designed to generate neither growth nor jobs, which means that instead of reaching the goal of reducing the public deficit, we will slip further away, and will once again be obliged to implement further, and deeper cuts, and so on, ad nauseam.

Last week marked a turning point in the language used to explain the steps being taken to deal with the crisis. Until now Rajoy has argued that the cuts, labour market reforms and other austerity measures he has approved were not imposed from outside, but his own idea. “It isn’t Merkel imposing austerity on us; we are applying it ourselves because we believe this is the right thing to do,” he said on more than one occasion.

In politics, decisions are usually made on the basis of the most efficient. Under the present circumstances, the opposite applies: policies are being applied in the full knowledge that they will serve no use, and can only be justified in terms of there being no alternative unless we want the country to go bankrupt and for Brussels to intervene. But in situations when there is no choice, there can be no policies, and, at the end of the day, no democracy. As a result, even if Brussels hasn’t taken over the economy, our democracy has been compromised.

How did we get to this point? What mistakes have been made along the way? The Japanese parliament’s investigation into the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant, released last week, points to a pattern of behavior that will be all too familiar to Spaniards. The report says that the tsunami that struck last year created the conditions for the disaster. But it warns starkly that a natural disaster cannot be blamed either for the accident itself, nor can it mitigate the collective and individual responsibilities for what happened. The report says that the accident was caused by a number of specific measures and decisions by individuals and institutions that could have been avoided. Above all, the report points to what it calls “cultural questions,” such as the country’s traditional respect for authority and refusal to criticize established practices, which meant that the response to the repercussions of the earthquake and tidal wave was too slow and inadequate.

Similarly, the independent report into September 11th clearly identified, and was highly critical of, the institutional failings that led the United States to one of the direst moments of its history. Much the same could be said of Spain. While it is true that the single currency clearly wasn’t prepared for the crisis sparked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent impact on the economies of many of its members, it is also the case that the current situation was not caused by that crisis. Our cultural practices and institutions need to be overhauled if we want to understand how we got here.

With that in mind, and given that Spain’s economic policies are now being dictated by Brussels, Congress will have plenty of time to commission an investigation to explain to the electorate, in the most dispassionate terms, the reasons for what is, without doubt, a collective failure.

This article first appeared in El Pais

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

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